When Monica Cox was playing in Section 1-AAAA in the late 1990s, the section race was generally a two-horse race.
Cox's Hempfield Area team and Greater Latrobe dominated the section.
Now in her first year as head coach at Penn-Trafford, Cox, a 1997 Hempfield graduate, is experiencing firsthand the power shift in the section.
"Playing at Hempfield it was always Hempfield or Latrobe," Cox said. "Now it is Hempfield, Norwin, Penn-Trafford and Latrobe. And any of those other teams can come up and nab you like Franklin Regional or Connellsville. I don't know if it has ever been as tight as it is. It is pretty tight ... but fun."
Cox has helped guide the Warriors to a 12-2 overall record. Through Tuesday, they were tied for first place in the section with a 7-2 record along with Norwin. Latrobe (9-3, 6-3) and Hempfield (9-5, 6-3) were a game behind.
Penn-Trafford vaulted into first place after a slow start. It dropped section contests to Latrobe and Hempfield early in the season and through five section games, the Warriors were just 3-2. Since then they had reeled off seven consecutive wins, including section wins against Norwin, Latrobe, Connellsville and Kiski Area.
"At the beginning of the year, it was a lot of learning," Cox said. "It was me learning about them and them learning about me. They weren't hitting as well, they had more on their minds than just softball. I was trying to get to know them personally and once things got started, it has been a boom."
The offense came alive after a 7-6 loss at Hempfield. The very next game Penn-Trafford scored 12 against Norwin and then 14 at Jeannette. They also scored double figures against Connellsville and Kiski Area and scored nine against Mount Pleasant, where Cox coached last season, in a non-section game Saturday.
"They are hitting like crazy," Cox said. "They do tend to wait a little bit. They don't jump on anyone right away but they never give up. I am thinking, we are going to lose and then here they come -- they pour it on. The seniors have a ton of heart. It usually starts with them."
Penn-Trafford has a wealth of depth, a luxury Cox did not have at Class AA Mount Pleasant last year.
"There is a person behind a starter at every position," Cox said. "You know what is coming in the future. Behind the starters there are freshmen who can take over at any time and be almost as productive."
Penn-Trafford's top returning starters include senior catcher Jessica Zavolta, senior first baseman Cassie Szymd and senior shortstop Ashley Yanniruberto. Yanniruberto was an all-section choice last season. Senior Tori Lago is a new starter at third base and freshman Megan Marasti is a new starter at second base.
Zavolta bats cleanup where she was hitting .433 going into this week. Szymd bats .463 and Marasti is leading the team with a .514 batting average.
Cox broke in an entirely new outfield this year with freshman left fielder Sarah Koscho, sophomore center fielder Megan Little, who was hitting at a .390 clip, and a platoon in right field with sophomore Cassie Surmacz and freshman Breanna Ginther.
Senior Frankie Ponziani and junior Nicole Smith are sharing pitching duties.
"It is just what my gut says that day," Cox said in regard to who starts in the pitching circle. "Frankie has a ton of movement [on her pitches] and Nicole has movement, too, but she is fast."
Smith throws about 53-54 mph.
"If you look in our section, she is the fastest around, but with the mound moved back 3 feet, some teams love to seed speed," Cox said. "Every once in a while they will tee off on Nicole. A lot of girls can't hold their bats back and their bat speed isn't quick enough. One time through the lineup we will throw one and then the other and try to maneuver it that way."
Since Cox was hired in November, the first goal the team set was winning the section title.
"That was huge on their minds," Cox said.